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Microsoft wants to use AR to see through fog and smoke

Apple autonomous cars, AI coffee orders, emailing help and other patents from Big Tech.

Microsoft wants to use AR to see through fog and smoke

See what isn't there.

Image: Microsoft/USPTO

It's beyond dark out at 5:30 p.m. these days, so perhaps, as you're stuck at home with nowhere to go, you're tempted to log off your bad screen and onto your good screen a little earlier than you should. Perhaps that's what happened over at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, as this was a bit of a fallow week for patents from Big Tech.

That being said, there were still a few neat ones out there: Microsoft is looking into using AR to actually augment what you see; Apple is hard at work on autonomous vehicles; and Facebook, for some reason, is very concerned about the longevity of magnetic tapes.

And remember: The big tech companies file all kinds of crazy patents for things, and though most never amount to anything, some end up defining the future.

Alphabet

Determining what's newsworthy

There have been absolutely no problems with using algorithms to program the content that people see on their social feeds, so I can't see any issue with this patent idea. Essentially, the patent outlines crawling the web for new videos posted to sites and blogs online, and using a corpus of knowledge about the topic at hand, determining whether someone interested in that topic would find this new video interesting, and then alert them to it. It's not entirely clear how this system would moderate what it's finding and showing to people, but I can't imagine how that would be an issue.



Encasing passengers in airbags

This reminds me of the inflatable bubble thing James Bond used to save his life in "The World Is Not Enough." Waymo's patent outlines several different ways of automatically encasing passengers in something safe in the event of a crash, ranging from a netting and curtain design that would just hold the passengers in place to a full-on squishy safety bubble. If a self-driving car with me in it has to crash (I hear a lot of talk about Trolley Problems or some such), I hope I'm in the squishy kind.

Amazon

Making sure you're emailing the right person

Have you ever had one of those mortifying moments when you meant to email John Smith at Microsoft and you accidentally emailed John Smith at Apple? It's awkward, to say the least. But Amazon is apparently looking into helping you pick the right email addresses. Using a combination of understanding what the email writer is saying and who they've picked as the recipient would help Amazon's system determine whether they meant to choose who they have. As the patent itself says, "'Stephen is a terrible manager' is probably acceptable to send a friend in a personal interaction, but sending 'Stephen is a terrible manager' to Stephen is probably not okay."

Apple

Autonomously finding barriers

Apple reportedly reorganized its vehicle project to report to the company's AI chief, John Giannandrea, and this sounds like the sort of work his team would be useful for. The patent covers the sorts of detections that autonomous vehicles will be doing as they venture out into the world, mapping static objects like barriers, fences, walls and the like, and determining that unlike people, vehicles or animals, they likely won't be moving into their path — and if they do, there's probably a bigger issue at play.

Making dragging and dropping on iPad a little easier

Apple is slowly acknowledging the fact that, on the iPad, doing complicated stuff with a mouse and keyboard is often easier than with your fingers. But dragging and dropping content from one app to another still leaves a bit to be desired. This patent outlines a future iPad operating system where users could use multiple fingers to drag multiple images (or other files) from one program to another. It also seems to suggest a future where you can have more than two or three programs onscreen at once — rather like windows on a computer. But what really is a computer?

Facebook

Making magnetic tapes last longer

This probably isn't the first area of innovation that you'd expect a young tech giant to be researching. Facebook's new patent revolves around magnetic-tape data storage systems for archival purposes. Physics and entropy being what they are, these tapes tend to degrade over time, especially with continual use. This patent outlines ways to check on the health of the tapes, how often they're read and written, and to flag to administrators if they're failing. It also includes, according to the patent, a "predictive analysis method used to predict a future health status of the archival tape." Or you could, you know, just stop using tape.

Microsoft

Using AI to get your pumpkin spice latte

Microsoft has a new patent about designing a conversational AI assistant that would actually be somewhat enjoyable to talk to; think the assistant in "Her," but more about selling you more stuff than achieving singularity. In one of the examples given, the user wants to know how long pumpkin spice latte season will last at their favorite cafe, BigCoffeeChain. The AI tells them it lasts well into the new year (those must be some resilient pumpkins they over there!), and uses context later in their interaction with the user to provide them with a coupon for a PSL, and later, a few questions about one of the chain's locations. It's a smart way to get more data out of customers in a rather unassuming fashion. At least there's cheap PSLs involved.


AR glasses that can see through fog

A lot of work in augmented reality seems to focus more on adding things on top of reality rather than actually … augmenting it. But this patent has some interesting ideas on how to augment the real world: It outlines using AR glasses to, among other things, see through things that impede the vision of our mere mortal eyes. Small particulates, like those in smoke, dust or fog, could be filtered out by a digital vision system, and the clearer picture could be overlaid onto the wearer's glasses. This could be useful for your average jogger or commuter, but could be life-saving for emergency services personnel.

Auto-detecting out of office

Sometimes, when it's late on a Friday and a much-needed vacation is staring you in the face, the last thing you remember to do before leaving the office is turn on your out-of-office message. Who wants another moment in Outlook when the beach is calling? Microsoft seems to be working on a solution to this with its patent. It describes a system built into your email that could detect whether you're likely working that day or not. It would see if your usage matches how much you check your email on the weekend, and if it's about the same, it could flag to colleagues who email you that you're not likely to respond. It could also do the same thing if you forgot to turn off our OOO when you're back at work, tan and rested and still thinking about the daiquiris from last week.

Power

Yes, GameStop is a content moderation issue for Reddit

The same tools that can be used to build mass movements can be used by bad actors to manipulate the masses later on. Consider Reddit warned.

WallStreetBets' behavior may not be illegal. But that doesn't mean it's not a problem for Reddit.

Image: Omar Marques/Getty Images

The Redditors who are driving up the cost of GameStop stock just to pwn the hedge funds that bet on its demise may not be breaking the law. But this show of force by the subreddit r/WallStreetBets still represents a new and uncharted front in the evolution of content moderation on social media platforms.

In a statement to Protocol, a Reddit spokesperson said the company's site-wide policies "prohibit posting illegal content or soliciting or facilitating illegal transactions. We will review and cooperate with valid law enforcement investigations or actions as needed."

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Issie Lapowsky
Issie Lapowsky (@issielapowsky) is a senior reporter at Protocol, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University’s Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing. Email Issie.
Protocol | Enterprise

SAP unveiled a big sales promo. It's a bid to juice cloud customer numbers.

The move is the culmination of CEO Christian Klein's efforts to turn around the German software giant.

SAP unveiled "RISE with SAP" on Wednesday.

Image: SAP

SAP CEO Christian Klein is trying out a major sales gambit in his attempt to get more customers onboard the software giant's signature cloud platform.

A new offer unveiled on Wednesday called "RISE with SAP" bundles together several products, including the flagship S/4 HANA platform, under one contract with a flat cost, a promotion that the company is hoping will encourage more users to more quickly switch from the on-premise services that dominated the company's product line until the last few years.

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Joe Williams

Joe Williams is a senior reporter at Protocol covering enterprise software, including industry giants like Salesforce, Microsoft, IBM and Oracle. He previously covered emerging technology for Business Insider. Joe can be reached at JWilliams@Protocol.com. To share information confidentially, he can also be contacted on a non-work device via Signal (+1-309-265-6120) or JPW53189@protonmail.com.

Microsoft wants to replace artists with AI

Better Zoom calls, simpler email attachments, smart iPhone cases and other patents from Big Tech.

Turning your stories into images.

Image: USPTO/Microsoft

Hello and welcome to 2021! The Big Tech patent roundup is back, after a short vacation and … all the things … that happened between the start of the year and now. It seems the tradition of tech companies filing weird and wonderful patents has carried into the new year; there are some real gems from the last few weeks. Microsoft is trying to outsource all creative endeavors to AI; Apple wants to make seat belts less annoying; and Amazon wants to cut down on some of the recyclable waste that its own success has inevitably created.

And remember: The big tech companies file all kinds of crazy patents for things, and though most never amount to anything, some end up defining the future.

Keep Reading Show less
Mike Murphy

Mike Murphy ( @mcwm) is the director of special projects at Protocol, focusing on the industries being rapidly upended by technology and the companies disrupting incumbents. Previously, Mike was the technology editor at Quartz, where he frequently wrote on robotics, artificial intelligence, and consumer electronics.

Protocol | China

More women are joining China's tech elite, but 'Wolf Culture' isn't going away

It turns out getting rid of misogyny in Chinese tech isn't just a numbers game.

Chinese tech companies that claim to value female empowerment may act differently behind closed doors.

Photo: Qilai Shen/Getty Images

A woman we'll call Fan had heard about the men of Alibaba before she joined its high-profile affiliate about three years ago. Some of them were "greasy," she said, to use a Chinese term often describing middle-aged men with poor boundaries. Fan tells Protocol that lewd conversations were omnipresent at team meetings and private events, and even women would feel compelled to crack off-color jokes in front of the men. Some male supervisors treated younger female colleagues like personal assistants.

Within six months, despite the cachet the lucrative job carried, Fan wanted to quit.

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Shen Lu

Shen Lu is a Reporter with Protocol | China. She has spent six years covering China from inside and outside its borders. Previously, she was a fellow at Asia Society's ChinaFile and a Beijing-based producer for CNN. Her writing has appeared in Foreign Policy, The New York Times and POLITICO, among other publications. Shen Lu is a founding member of Chinese Storytellers, a community serving and elevating Chinese professionals in the global media industry.

People

Google's union has big goals — and big roadblocks

Absence of dues, retaliation fears and small numbers could pose problems for the union's dream of collective bargaining, but Googlers are undeterred.

Recruiting union members beyond the early adopters has had its challenges.

Photo: David Paul Morris/Getty Images

When the Alphabet Workers Union launched with more than 200 Googlers at the beginning of the year, it saw a quick flood of new sign-ups, nearly quadrupling membership over a few weeks. But even with the more than 710 members it now represents, the union still stands for just a tiny fraction of Google's more than 200,000 North American employees and contractors. The broader Alphabet workforce could prove difficult to win over, which is a hurdle that could stand in the way of the group's long-term ambitions for substantive culture change and even collective bargaining.

The initial boom of interest from Googlers was thrilling for Alex Peterson, a software engineer and union spokesperson. "It's really reinvigorating what it means to actually be a community of Googlers, which is something that's been eroding over the past four or five years, or even longer."

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Anna Kramer

Anna Kramer is a reporter at Protocol (@ anna_c_kramer), where she helps write and produce Source Code, Protocol's daily newsletter. Prior to joining the team, she covered tech and small business for the San Francisco Chronicle and privacy for Bloomberg Law. She is a recent graduate of Brown University, where she studied International Relations and Arabic and wrote her senior thesis about surveillance tools and technological development in the Middle East.

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